It’s exactly two weeks until opening night at Royal Athletic Park and I’m spending the day with the HarbourCats new General Manager Brad Norris-Jones, attaching the sponsor signs to the outfield wall. The city is keeping one step ahead of us, moving the outfield sections into place along line that’s been carefully etched onto the field, officially turning the old multi-use facility into a cathedral of baseball for the next three months. “This is one of the last big-ticket jobs to be done”, says Norris-Jones, and a look around the yard proves just that. The infield is being packed with fresh clay, and the field is being cut over and over again to get the surface down to playing length. A walk around the outfield reveals a couple of things; firstly it is in extremely good condition – possibly the nicest track of grass south of the Butchart Gardens – level, dry, beautifully green and healthy. Secondly, there’s proof there are a lot of geese in this town… and I mean a LOT of geese.
The progress is impressive at this point. “We’re way ahead of last year”, Brad mentions. “Year four as an organization, it’s like old hat, and you can plot out each remaining day knowing what to do. We’re probably 90% ready at this point”. That confidence is helped along knowing that many of the major things that have slowed the HarbourCats in past years have been overcome. Ownership of the team is no longer on anyone’s mind, arrangements with the city have been smoothed out, sponsorship and game-day vendors are all in place. It all seem a little easier this season. And the field itself is a complete non-issue. “I don’t think the grounds crew from the city gets as much recognition as they should. They have real pride in this park now. The first year this wasn’t a baseball park – the mound was slanted, it was too tall, the infield was soft. We’re in great shape this year”.
The park has undergone a major upgrade this year with the edition of a new row of seats, directly in front of the concrete wall that surrounds the infield. These field level seats are available to season ticket holders now as upgrades, and unsold seats will be available for each game. The third-base side is reserved for group sales – but if not sold for a game as a group, they too will go on sale 48 hours prior to game time as single seats. The new seats bring another much needed upgrade to the park – new netting has replaced every inch of chain-link fence and steel pole that used to obstruct views of the field from the lower rows. “The new netting is a fantastic upgrade giving everybody a perfect sight line. Now even (what used to be) the front row is a desirable seat” comments Norris-Jones.
With the park nearly ready, how does Norris-Jones feel about himself filling the GM shoes for the first time? A Victorian since age three when his family moved from Saskatchewan (he still admits he has a bit of Rider Pride tucked down deep that surfaces whenever they get close to the Grey Cup), the Spectrum and UVic student has come a long way since his real job as a youth camp leader for the Boys and Girls club. Next came 18 years in business for himself with a successful sports memorabilia shop – what seemed like a small retail offering on Fort Street was just the tip of the iceberg, as he worked tenaciously to secure merchandise deals with close to 100 MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL teams. “That was my true passion at the time… I was working with pro sports teams signing deals to get merchandise into their hands”. That’s big business for someone working from a small store thousands of miles away in the early days of the internet. Brad still lists signing his first pro team deal with the St. Louis Blues as one of his top career and life moments.
After answering an ad for the first-year Victoria HarbourCats – with a resume expertly crafted by his wife (now a UBC Computer Science Prof) – he joined the team as a commissioned salesman. “My wife is such an amazing person, and her support really helped me take the leap. Take it she said, and within five years you’ll be running the place”. She was off by a year – it’s year four, and Norris Jones has made it to where he wants to be. “When I was 18, I said I wanted to be mayor of this city. But after seeing what goes on, I don’t want to be Mayor anymore”, he quips. Does he think he can do the GM job? “Absolutely” he says without hesitation. He cites his business track record and previous experiences dealing with sports teams as a key factor, along with having his son Kelly play at a high level of ball and helping him through the college ball program at the University of Illinois. That gives him an insight that few others could put on a resume.
And what does the new GM have on his mind these days? What’s keeping him up at night? “Players” he says. “When they are coming, what coach is going to call Jim (Swanson) or I and say they have shut a guy down for the summer”. An obvious issue at this point, with players dropping like flies as they max out on innings played or pitches thrown, or end their college seasons with nagging injuries that prevent them from playing summer ball. “We’ve learned from the last couple years when we didn’t have enough players. Last year we signed 40 guys, and lost 15. This year we signed 70, and were down to 44 or so”. The issue right now is that many of the remaining players on the list are in the NCAA Div 1 Tournament for the next month, so signing some good 10-day players for the first couple series is the biggest priority right now. And not just bench fillers as he explains “Being a 10-day guy doesn’t mean they won’t stay – Alex Rogers was a 10-day guy, and he was an All-Star”.
So what is Brad Norris-Jones the GM looking forward to in the HarbourCats 2016 season? “I’m looking for a championship. We don’t say that much, but we aren’t here for a beauty pageant. Sure the business is important and has to be in order and all that, but that’s what we look after from September to May”. Can it be done, do the HarbourCats have the pieces in place to eclipse last season and find themselves in a playoff spot come August? “I think (coach) Graig Merritt understands how to win in this league now, and my feeling about Merritt, is that there’s no one better between the lines”. With the right mix of players for him to manage, it seems there is more than a reasonable chance of success.
And come September, when the players have all gone, and the season is in the books, what does Brad hope to have accomplished? What will make his personal year a success? “I want people to come to the park and understand that it’s not all about baseball. It’s about entertainment and a great night at the ball park. I want people to know they can bring their son or daughter, bring their best friends, bring their mom and dad, and have a great time here. Not just baseball fans, I want people who have never been to a game before to come and say ‘I had a lot of fun, that was a great night out’”.
While he recognizes that it’s a complete package – the long-term stability of the club, the fiscal responsibility of the organization, and the importance of winning in this marketplace, Brad sticks to that mantra. “I think if you take care of the atmosphere at the park, then everything else should take care of itself”.
Certainly if Norris-Jones’ enthusiasm for the season counts for anything, that great atmosphere and good times should be overflowing at Royal Athletic come opening day.